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The Origins of Modern Day Policing

"Tough on crime" laws have put an unprecedented number of non-violent offenders behind bars and our neighborhoods feel no more secure. This system has deep roots in slavery.

Slave patrols

The origins of modern-day policing can be traced back to the "Slave Patrol." The earliest formal slave patrol was created in the Carolinas in the early 1700s with one mission: to establish a system of terror and squash slave uprisings with the capacity to pursue, apprehend, and return runaway slaves to their owners. Tactics included the use of excessive force to control and produce desired slave behavior.

"I [patroller's name], do swear, that I will as searcher for guns, swords, and other weapons among the slaves in my district, faithfully, and as privately as I can, discharge the trust reposed in me as the law directs, to the best of my power. So help me, God."

North Carolina Slave Patrol Oath

Slave Patrols continued until the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment. Following the Civil War, during Reconstruction, slave patrols were replaced by militia-style groups who were empowered to control and deny access to equal rights to freed slaves. They relentlessly and systematically enforced Black Codes, strict local and state laws that regulated and restricted access to labor, wages, voting rights, and general freedoms for formerly enslaved people.

In 1868, ratification of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution technically granted equal protections to African Americans — essentially abolishing Black Codes. Jim Crow laws and state and local statutes that legalized racial segregation swiftly took their place.

By the 1900s, local municipalities began to establish police departments to enforce local laws in the East and Midwest, including Jim Crow laws. Local municipalities leaned on police to enforce and exert excessive brutality on African Americans who violated any Jim Crow law. Jim Crow Laws continued through the end of the 1960s.

"The crisis in policing is the culmination of a thousand other failures — failures of education, social services, public health, gun regulation, criminal justice, and economic development."

The New Yorker, July 13, 2020

A continuing bias

The criminal justice system is heavily impacted by the bias of police mentality and outdated judicial precedents. The system is largely driven by racial disparities and the Black community continues to be a target. The results are brutal and long lasting.

"All cruelty begins with dehumanization — not seeing the face of the other, not seeing the whole humanity of the other. A cultural regime of dehumanization has been constructed in many police departments. In that fertile ground, racial biases can spread and become entrenched."

The Atlantic, (June 16, 2020),The Culture of Policing is Broken

The legacy and effects of biased policing are far reaching. The U.S. is home to the world's largest prison population and the highest per-capita incarceration rate. As of May 2020, there were 655 people incarcerated per 100,000. Prison, parole, and probation operations cost U.S. taxpayers $81 billion a year.

Derrick Johnson, NAACP President and CEO

The relationship between law enforcement and our communities is fractured because of decades of a bad system that has let countless issues go unaddressed.  

- Derrick Johnson, NAACP President and CEO

Did you know?

Holding police officers accountable is difficult

  • In 2020, there were 1,021 fatal police shootings, and in 2019 there were 999 fatal shootings. Additionally, the rate of fatal police shootings among Black Americans was much higher than that for any other ethnicity, standing at 35 fatal shootings per million of the population as of March 2021. (
  • Since 2005 (through June 24, 2019), 104 non-federal law enforcement officers have been arrested in connection with fatal, on-duty shootings. (Police Integrity Research Group, Bowling Green State University)
    • To date, only 35 of these officers have been convicted of a crime, often a lesser offense such as manslaughter or negligent homicide, rather than murder.
    • Only four officers have been convicted of murder during this period and seen their convictions stand.
    • Another 23 officers were acquitted in a jury trial and nine were acquitted during a bench trial decided by a judge.
    • Eleven other cases were dismissed by a judge or a prosecutor and in one instance, no true bill was returned from a grand jury.
    • Currently, there are 24 non-federal law enforcement officers with pending criminal cases for fatal shootings.

The cost of police brutality is high

  • While many police brutality and fatal police shootings are not prosecuted in criminal court, victims and the families of victims have been able to pursue civil judgments, which cost millions of taxpayers dollars each year.
  • $175.9 million in civil judgments and claims for police-related lawsuits was paid by New York City during the 2019 fiscal year. New York City has the largest police force with 36,000 members serving 8.3 million people.
  • $500 million was paid out by the City of Chicago between 2004 and 2014 for police misconduct-related lawsuits. The Chicago police department has 12,000 officers serving 2.7 million people.

The need for a smarter criminal justice system

We advocate for smarter, positive, results-based criminal justice policies to keep our communities safe. These policies include issues that are very important to us: treatment for mental health issues and addiction, judicial discretion in sentencing, and an end to racial disparities at all levels of the system.

More on race and justice policies
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